EPFL has developed tiny fibers made of elastomer that can incorporate materials like electrodes and nanocomposite polymers. The fibers can detect even the slightest pressure and strain and can withstand deformation of close to 500 percent before recovering their initial shape, all of which makes them perfect for applications in smart clothing and prostheses, and for creating artificial nerves for robots.
The fibers were developed at EPFL’s Laboratory of Photonic Materials and Fiber Devices (FIMAP), headed by Fabien Sorin at the School of Engineering. The scientists came up with a fast and easy method for embedding microstructures in super-elastic fibers. For instance, by adding electrodes at strategic locations, they turned the fibers into ultra-sensitive sensors. What’s more, their method can be used to produce hundreds of meters of fiber in a short amount of time. Their research has just been published in Advanced Materials.
To make their fibers, the scientists used a thermal drawing process, which is the standard process for optical-fiber manufacturing. They started by creating a macroscopic preform with the various fiber components arranged in a carefully designed 3-D pattern. They then heated the preform and stretched it out, like melted plastic, to make fibers of a few hundred microns in diameter. And while this process stretched out the pattern of components lengthwise, it also contracted it crosswise, meaning the components’ relative positions stayed the same. The end result was a set of fibers with an extremely complicated microarchitecture and advanced properties.